When Icon CMT decided it would close its culture e-zine Word earlier this year, the Word staff created Fred the Webmate, an unemployed interactive friend as a sort of tongue-in-cheek virtual memorial.
The staff's irreverence was classic Word.
Fred and Word, on its last leg seven months ago, will get a new life October 5, when the fish processing company-turned-Internet upstart Zapata will relaunch the site. Zapata bought Word and recreation site Charged from Icon CMT in April for $2 million and vowed to rehire the staffs and continue the e-zines largely unchanged.
"[Fred] was inspired by when we were being shut down," said Marisa Bowe, editor of the online publication.
Out-of-work Fred--he was fired from "a big new media company"--is a Shockwave animation that spits out randomly generated comments, ostensibly conversing with the reader.
"Fred is pop culture, but we don't write about pop culture," Bowe said. "But through the dialogue there's something there."
Zapata wants the e-zines to fill a void in its rapidly growing Internet arsenal. The company is ambitiously expanding its Internet holdings, attempting to compete with portal players Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, Go Network, and Snap for status as a top destination on the Net. (Snap is a joint venture between NBC and CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.)
In May, Zapata tried to acquire Excite, but the Net directory rejected the unsolicited $72-per-share bid.
Instead, Zapata hopes buying sites such as Word and Charged will help it reach a young, upscale audience with disposable income--an advertiser's dream. And the company needs content sites to keep Web surfers coming back to the Zap.com site.
Word's documentary-style articles and first-person writing is aimed at attracting professional 20- and 30-somethings with an alternative bent.
"It appeals to people with a certain sense of humor, people who would like The Simpsons, not The Waltons," Bowe said. "It's more like dysfunction; people who took too many drugs in high school. But not too much so. We're not eating live hamsters and getting blood all over."
Meanwhile, Charged, an "extreme leisure" site that covers everything from skateboarding and surfing to Laser Tag and model rockets, had a "soft relaunch" Monday and will roll out all its new content Monday.
Charged, like Word, has a small but devoted following. The site also offers off-the-wall content such as next month's feature on why people wear clothes.
"If viewed naked, approximately 99 percent of the population would make you throw up. Which, for matters of procreation, is also why people invented beer," the article's preview opines.
Charged, like Word, is about attitude and "not taking things too seriously," said editor Alice Bradley.
"We reach an audience that's urban and interested in different ways of having fun," she said. "People who aren't into making work their whole life and want to do more than watch reruns and eat Cheetos at night."
Zapata's foray into Internet publishing has been quick and decisive. The company has acquired scores of sites this year, attracting plenty of media attention for its ocean-to-online business strategy.
But the company's move should not come as a total surprise. Chief executive Avie Glazer and the Glazer family own nearly half of Zapata, and they say they are always on the lookout for the next great opportunity.
"Zapata is really more like a holding company," said spokesman Keith Lanigan. "The Glazers are really value investors."
The Glazer family bought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers professional football franchise in 1995 when the team was still poor, and last year the Bucs made the playoffs. They also bought a share of the Houlihan's restaurant chain in 1992 just as Americans began eating out more than ever before.
The family owned part of the Harley Davidson motorcycle company at one time as well, Lanigan said.